Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

Writers of fantasy have been seriously slacking. Here we were, thinking they’d been inventing whole new worlds, imagining undiscovered lands, conjuring up hitherto undreamed of vistas and cultures and religions and vegetables and hats when, as it turns out, they’ve just been ripping shit off. These so-called writers have been taking places and people from the real world, from real history, tossing this stuff in their books, giving it new names, and hoping we would never notice!

And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take much digging to find the real referents here, not when you’re clued in to the trick. Anyone else notice that Khal Drogo’s title sounds a lot like Khan, that the Dothraki are essentially Mongols? Or that Robert Jordan’s Caemlyn looks a lot like England? Or that R. Scott Bakker’s plot (in The Prince of Nothing) draws heavily on the Crusades? Or that N. K. Jemisin’s Gujarreh is modeled on Egypt? Or that Daniel Abraham’s entire map (in The Dragon’s Path) is just Europe scrunched up a little bit? What horseshit!

I’m joking, of course. Not about fantasy writers ripping shit off – we do that all the time – but about the idea that these cultural borrowings are either lazy, secret, or deleterious to the works in question. They are not.

In fact, far from diminishing the effect of these novels, I’d argue that such borrowing and modification, skillfully handled, is a boon for author and reader both. After all, when I sit down to read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, she tells me right up front in the author’s note that the names and geography are essentially Egyptian. This sweeps aside a whole lot of work for both of us. I’m already imagining deserts and the Nile, monumental architecture and loincloths. She describes these things, of course – the world is well and truly fleshed out – but she doesn’t need to start from the ground up. Instead, she can dig more quickly into plot and character, confident that the reader, clued in to the cultural shorthand, will fill in any missing details more or less correctly. I usually enjoy reading fantasy in which the writer modifies a pre-existing culture because I feel I can focus on the important details instead of pausing every few seconds, muttering, “Wait, they live in straw houses and eat what again?”

There are, however, some dangers here. Most obviously, the writer will want to depart from the historical model in places. This is what makes the book fantasy and not historical fiction. However, the momentum of shared cultural assumptions can obscure these points of departure. If the whole book I’m reading draws heavily on the culture of medieval Japan, it’s going to be more difficult for the writer to steer us out of the relevant assumptions when such steering becomes necessary. The familiarity of the known becomes a sort of prison.

Of course, part of the fun has been to establish what seems to be a familiar cultural paradigm only to subvert it. “Look,” the author says. “This place is just like medieval Arabia. Load it up with your assumptions. Keep piling them on! You’re doing great!” And then, because the book is fantasy and not history, she pulls the carpet out, forcing us to realize that a) this place is not medieval Arabia, but something altogether stranger and more wonderful, and that b) maybe our assumptions about medieval Arabia weren’t all that dialed-in to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that all writers employ these methods. The shelves are piled with fantasy novels that eschew any obvious borrowings, geographic, linguistic, cultural, or religious. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is an obvious example, as is Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. I find both worlds fascinating and disorienting at the same time, refreshing for their refusal to draw on any givens, but daunting for the same reason. These are, in a way, the purest fantasies, and I find myself amazed by the ambition and ability of both writers. Still, it’s useful here to remember that the root of “amazed” is “maze,” as in delusion, bewilderment, perhaps drawn from the Norwegian mas, meaning “exhausting labor.” In other words, writers who build their worlds from the bedrock up require a lot more work from their readers. The payoff from Le Guin and Erikson is so great that I don’t hesitate to put in this work, but it’s important to note the costs nonetheless; a lot more people have read The Wheel of Time than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I’m curious to hear from other readers and writers. When does the sort of cultural shorthand I’ve been trying to describe work well, and when does it seem lazy or derivative? Would you rather read books with lands that are vaguely familiar, or plunge into something altogether new?

8 thoughts on “Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

  1. Lloyd Alexander discussed frequently that his Chronicles of Prydain are essentially drawn from Welsh myth. I think when the author is up front about their borrowings/source material/inspiration it can work very well.

  2. It depends… when I find it a problem is when the writer assumes things on the basis of those cultural starting points. If it’s the world is based on Medieval Japan, great. But whatever you do, don’t use words like daimyo or bushido without additional description. Then it just becomes a copypasta of archetypes, without much thought as to what goes behind them.

    This isn’t just a problem with existing cultures of course;describing something as (say) an “elven bow” without adding any other description is just as bad. What unites them is when cultural references are substituted for description, rather than forming the basis of it.

    • Very well said, especially that final line. The question of how much knowledge the writer requires of the reader is an interesting one. Clearly, one wouldn’t write: “Immel climbed into the wagon — a sort of low, wooden cart on four wheels with a bench for the driver and space for grain or other dry goods.” But what about such fantasy commonplaces as a “murder hole” in a castle or a “phalanx”. I would think the majority of fantasy readers understand these terms, and for them additional description might only slow the narrative. On the other hand, what about those new to the genre who might be genuinely confused? I suppose what you’re suggesting is that the context, either local or global, should flesh out these details, a suggestion with which I would agree!
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  3. I myself think it’s very cool when an author takes the time to create an entire world, such as Tolkien (I love his writing) but I see what you mean. What I would say, for myself and other writers is that if youre going to create your own world, it would be important to have maps, and descriptions throughout the book. Also, If something is unique, the reader will have an easier time remembering it. Example; throughout LOTR and The Hobbit, you don’t forget what the Hobbit holes are like, because they are so unique.
    That’s just my thoughts, mostly discovering these things for myself, as I’m a very young and new writer, and I’m in the process of creating my own fictional world.
    Thanks!

    • I agree that it seems ideal for every fantasy writer to have, somewhere, her or his Silmarillion, even if it never sees the light of day. I’m amazed at how much material I write about the various locations, peoples, religions, etc. in my book that never gets included. Sometimes it feels like a waste, but I’m not sure of any other way to do it!

      • Yes, exactly. Even if it never gets read, it’s important for you to understand the backstory if what your writing, and if there’s a language, the stories behind some of the meanings, I think that would always make a story better. My language I’m writing is different; because even colors and numbers have meanings (ex: Blue- life Silver- Love. I’m still working on the numbers)
        Thanks for your posts and comments, your really helpful to a very unknowing young writer!🙂

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